Just over one month before a special election in Alabama for the U.S. Senate, The Washington Post published a story about Republican candidate Roy Moore that revealed inappropriate contact he made with teenage girls.
The understated importance of this story was it included bits and pieces of how the story was reported to begin with; right within in the story, the reporters showed how they learned of the allegations.
“[Leigh] Corfman described her story consistently in six interviews with The Post. The Post confirmed that her mother attended a hearing at the courthouse in February 1979 through divorce records. Moore’s office was down the hall from the courtroom.
“Neither Corfman nor any of the other women sought out The Post. While reporting a story in Alabama about supporters of Moore’s Senate campaign, a Post reporter heard that Moore allegedly had sought relationships with teenage girls. Over the ensuing three weeks, two Post reporters contacted and interviewed the four women.”
By including these crucial sentences, The Post provided readers with enough context to let them rely on the reporting. The reporters didn’t let claims of “fake news” dismantle the truth. How could it? The evidence was clearly stated.
Being transparent about the reporting process allowed The Post to build trust with its readers. That trust was then proven when a majority of Alabama voters believed the allegations against Moore were true, according to a Washington Post exit poll.
“Transparency is a key element that can help to rebuild trust with members of the public,” said Nic Newman, journalist, digital strategist and author of “Bias, Bullshit and Lies: Audience Perspectives on Low Trust in the Media.”
Being transparent as a journalist means many things. It can be as simple as showing evidence to readers through hyperlinking documents, publishing transcripts, naming all sources and explaining the reporting and publishing processes within the story. It can also be as complicated as teaching members of the public how to understand the ethical decisions journalists make every day.
Whichever way news organizations go about implementing transparency, it’s important to note that transparency is not a strict set of rules or procedures every journalist should always follow. It’s a mindset, a spirit, an attitude or a point of view.
The Post’s Roy Moore disclosure and several others like it are examples that the news industry has entered what Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute executive director, calls an era of “show me” journalism.
Rosenstiel explained once journalists get into things where there’s political polarization, legal liability or anything controversial, they will have to provide more transparency. In some cases, this means explaining within the story if there were conflicts of interest, how the story was put together or the limitations of what reporters do and don’t know.
For example, readers are divided about whether they believe stories published about the investigation into Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election. So editors should be more diligent in disclosing how they reported the story and who provided the information.
Common sense has to rule over transparency, Rosenstiel said. It isn’t always possible to name sources, and sometimes there are justifiable reasons to withhold identification, such as the physical safety or job security of the source. In those cases, journalists can help readers understand the situation by explaining how and why the decision was made.
“You need to show the evidence, and how much evidence you need to show depends on how skeptical the audience is going to be and how controversial the issue is that you’re writing about or publishing about,” he said. “How complex is the story itself and how skeptical is the audience reasonably going to be are two major factors that influence this.”
Transparency has always been important, but now it’s at the center of what we consider ethical journalism.
The Society of Professional Journalists added “Be Accountable and Transparent” as one of the four pillars of its Code of Ethics in 2014, the first update to the code in 18 years. Andrew Seaman, SPJ Ethics Committee chairman, said transparency was understood as an important part of journalism ethics, but with the internet and social media changing how news is shared and consumed, it was time to highlight it.
Four years later, the need for transparency has increased even more because of the current concern about public trust in the media, media ethicist Stephen J. Ward said.
Distrust in the media isn’t new. Trust in media had the most significant drop in the 1980s, according to Gallup research. The press in many ways is just now catching up to this reality, in part because it’s been articulated by the president.
There are many reasons for the mistrust, and transparency doesn’t solve all of those problems; it’s only one part of the solution. In addition to transparency, the solution includes accountability and norm convention — rethinking the old ways of doing things and applying new norms, new principles and new protocols of action.
“Mechanisms for accountability are as important as transparency and public trust,” Ward said. “The question in the media is, how can we be accountable? Not just transparent, but accountable to respond to people’s questions and answers.”
There are other ways to increase trust. The first, and most obvious, is to keep producing great journalism. On one end of the spectrum, people are embracing investigative journalism. On the other, people will continue to not trust the press.
“Transparency will work well with people who are sitting on the fence,” Newman said. “It’s going to work a lot less well with people who think you’re biased and polarized anyway.”
For those on the fence, Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist, said journalists have to do their jobs as accurately, fairly and openly as possible.
“We can try to explain ourselves the best we can and do the best journalism we can, but people will have to come to us to some extent,” Sullivan said. “When they do come to us, we have to give them journalism that’s fair, accurate, verified and trustworthy.”
In the current media climate, it’s difficult for most people to determine what information is or isn’t reliable, Newman said. The issue, he said, is how to tell whether a journalist or publication’s content is going to be reliable or not.
When there are fabricated statements, false statements and inaccurate statements made, transparency — in the sense of showing evidence, showing work and showing the lines of reasoning — is a great way to rebut charges of fake news, said PolitiFact editor Angie Holan.
“Transparency is ultimately how we show our worth,” Holan said.
The audience is more likely to have trust if they know how reporters came to the conclusions in stories, Sullivan said. Being as upfront as possible about journalists’ processes and procedures is the way to show news organizations’ legitimacy, she said.
But Seaman cautioned transparency has to remain about the journalism itself. If reporters reveal whom they vote for, they are revealing unnecessary information, and it ultimately harms journalism, he said.
Claims of fake news have made the need for trusted content, trusted journalists and trusted brands more important, Newman said. Being able to differentiate responsible journalism from non-responsible journalism helps to distinguish reliable news from “news” that is not.
Understanding why people trust some forms of media over others is important, Ward said. In the same vein he argues that trust is too strong a word. Currently, the public will use cynicism to damage anything journalists produce, even if it’s true journalism. The hope is for members of the public to be able to rely on the news media.
Whether transparency helps to build trust, ultimately it is the right thing to do as a journalist, Rosenstiel said.
“You don’t need to have some empirical evidence that it’s going to increase trust,” he said.
For the everyday journalist, there are ways to implement transparency into daily routines:
Publish raw material
Publishing things such as interview transcripts or original source documents can help readers understand how reporters draw their conclusions, Sullivan said. Where possible, Newman said, it’s going to help the authenticity of stories if reporters can prove that essentially the homework was done.
The New York Times started publishing full transcripts of interviews with then-President-elect Donald Trump in 2016. After a strong and mostly positive reaction, the Times continued to publish full transcripts with Trump, building credibility among its readers and even its skeptics. Sometimes the transcript can be the story, but it shouldn’t always be.
Include necessary information
Mentioning when and where journalists are reporting from is another way to add transparency into reporting, Seaman said. Sharing the limitations of knowledge while reporting is important, he said.
“If there’s a developing situation, be upfront. Tell [the readers], ‘OK. We don’t know necessarily who the victims are. We don’t know who the person is or whether the police have them, but here’s what we do know,’” Seaman said.
Being transparent within a story, he said, is like a recipe. If it’s a good recipe, people will be able to replicate it. The same goes for news stories.
As new technology develops, it can be used to increase transparency in stories. For example, Rosenstiel said he thinks the growth of artificial intelligence will play a huge part in increasing transparency. He compared a potential fact-checking software to the software universities typically use to combat plagiarism.
“It’s not inconceivable that you could essentially, in the same way you run a spell check, run a fact check over a finished piece of copy,” Rosenstiel said.
Share source lists
Sometimes, showing transparency is as simple as publishing the list of sources.
At PolitiFact, that’s been the main idea since it was started in 2007. Source lists make editing easier and allow for more concise writing, Holan said. Publishing source lists online is easier because there’s more space for it.
Journalists and their publishers need to do a better job of owning up to errors. Having a legitimate corrections policy that is followed is one way news organizations are establishing trust with readers.
Seaman said news organizations need to be better about sharing the consequences of the editorial process not working. By making sure its audience knows the error and that it is taking steps to ensure the error won’t happen again, the news organization identifies its own weaknesses and protects its brand.
“You’re going to be remembered more for the mistakes you make than for all the stories you get right. There’s an expectation that your stories are right,” Rosenstiel said. “How you respond to mistakes is more important, in many ways, than the mistakes you make.”
Firing journalists isn’t always the answer, especially when the bigger issue is usually systemic, Seaman said.
“Readers are usually pretty forgiving about errors that are corrected,” Holan said. “Most people understand that everyone makes mistakes, so having a corrections policy and having corrections is a great way to show transparency and trust.”
People who want to make the press an enemy will latch onto mistakes and use them as ammunition, Holan said.
“All news organizations need to do what they can right now to bring heightened scrutiny to their reporting before it is published or broadcast because mistakes on sensitive topics will be politicized and, frankly, criticized,” Holan said.
Sullivan said when errors occur, and they inevitably do, it’s important to correct them quickly and openly, and to tell people as much as possible about why the mistake was made.
“Being open about your mistakes can absolutely build confidence, but only if you prove that you’ve learned from it and are doing things differently as a result,” Newman said.
Focus on community
Another way to increase transparency and build trust in everyday reporting is to focus on community outreach. Seaman said this is where transparency at the organizational level is important.
He suggests news organizations should send their staff into the community to learn what their audiences are thinking and what they need. Covering a community that might otherwise be underserved or under-covered could increase rapport between members of that community and those who report on it. Going to those communities even when there isn’t a story to report can go a long way.
“I always say good ethics is good business, and so good transparency is also good business,” Seaman said.
Sullivan said teaching news literacy and civics at an early age is one way for journalists to gain trust with the public, even though it’s not the sole responsibility of news organizations. Ward said journalists have to become “democratically engaged.”
“This goes way beyond what newsrooms or media ever thought they’d be doing,” Ward said. “Journalists need to go into schools and need to go all kinds of places to show what they look like and explain how they differ from someone who is just a biased commentator.”
Media education and media literacy, including ethics literacy, are crucial right now. Truth-telling and other vital principles are important, but media professionals have to rethink how they apply in today’s world, Ward said. Transparency is one of those areas.
“My warning is, it’s not enough,” Ward said.
Anna Gutierrez is the Communications Coordinator for SPJ and a regular contributor to Quill. She freelance edits for Indulge Magazine in Fort Worth, Texas, and has contributed to the Bulletin, the monthly magazine for American Mensa.